My head was hurting. A lot. Not quite to the point of wanting to throw up, but close. Not a migraine which I do not get. It was a sinus headache, which I do get thanks to some unpleasant encounters with a baseball during my childhood. I have Tylenol for such occasions, but it was in the glove compartment of my car. And my car was ten feet in the air while a Pep Boys mechanic installed four new tires. I went out into the sunlight, which made my head hurt even more. I looked around the Academy Blvd strip mall for options.

There was a Whole Foods a couple of store fronts away. Good, I thought. Grocers carry Tylenol or aspirin. I stumbled into the store. It wasn’t my first visit to a natural grocery store, but it was my first visit to a Whole Foods. At the entrance were some tables with a variety of crystal wearing yuppie types, eating food and drinking wine. I liked the idea of a wine bar in a grocery store. Very civilized and European. Then I noticed the menu board and saw that a slice of royal Arabian goat cheese pizza cost almost as much as a new tire. And judging from the looks of it, the pizza was about as edible as one. Good lord, I thought. For that price, they should serve the pizza slices on the bare stomach of a vestal virgin.

I then promptly got lost in the store. I’m sure there is logic behind the floor plan. And maybe if my head didn’t hurt so much I could have figured it out. What became quickly obvious is that Whole Foods is nothing like a regular grocery store. It’s not just the fact that there are entire aisles of gluten-free products. But there was very little in the store that was not considered edible. Modern supermarkets are designed to be one stop shopping. Superstores sell rubber for your car, yourself, or your baby all in the same place. Whole Foods sells food. Or at least it claims to be food. I wasn’t so sure about some of it. I certainly didn’t recognize any of the brands, cans, or packages. And how can bread be gluten-free? Seriously. It’s like calling something grape-free wine.

I would wager that a muesli munching PETA member would feel that they were in lacto-ovo-glaucophyte heaven, but I was lost. I finally found two aisles that were stacked top to bottom with herbal supplements for everything from clogged colons to a lack of personality. But I found no headache remedies in the thousands of “natural” products. I was sure some of them listed curing headaches as a side effect but by this time I couldn’t focus on the labels clearly enough to read them. In desperation, I asked an orthorexic in a Whole Foods apron for help.

“Do you carry Tylenol?” I asked.

She looked at me as if I had asked for poodle tartar.

“No,” she sniffed. “We only carry natural products.”

“How about aspirin?” I asked. “That’s a natural product.”

My assertion that aspirin is a natural product stumped her. She tilted her head like a dog trying to figure out an IRS form.

“How about willow bark,” I said desperately. “Do you have any of that?”

The mention of tree bark caused her demeanor to brighten and her head to straighten.

“Sure,” she said. And she led me straight to a spot on the supplement shelves.

“We have it in powder, capsule, and whole bark.”

“Thank you,” I said.

One advantage of being a science teacher and somewhat self-sufficient is that I’ve learned  some tricks of chemistry that can save money. Exhibit A is that I make my own hot/cold packs, weed killer, and eyeglass cleaner for pennies rather than the dollars retailers charge. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, which is a precursor to acetylsalicylic acid, more commonly called aspirin. Willow bark is a traditional headache remedy and I have used it as such when I am in a river fly fishing. It tastes nasty but does the job. I looked at the willow bark section. The powdered and encapsulated bark was priced at $25 and $23 respectively. A couple of strips of plain bark were $10.59. Probably not enough bark to do the job anyways. I put the bottles back. I can get willow bark a block away from my house for free. I also knew that there were willows less than a mile from the Whole Foods store. My head really hurt but being ripped off by paying for an item whose container cost more than the contents would have hurt me worse.

I dragged myself back out into the sunlight. I peered northward and saw an Office Depot that could offer a distraction from my pain and headed toward it. I picked up my pace when I remembered that office supply stores sell first aid kits for office use and often these contained headache remedies. Even better, I discovered, they sell aspirin and Tylenol at the front register. The aspirin was generic and cost 97¢ for 100 tablets. I paid my money and swallowed three tablets before even locating a drinking fountain. Same nasty taste as willow bark but more effective. Within twenty minutes my head started feeling better.

Looking back at the “whole” episode, I am very pleased with myself. I connected with my ancestors in an important way. Willows have been held in high regard for millennia by humans. Willow branches are used in Jewish, Buddhist, and some Christian religious ceremonies. Culturally, willows have been used for decorating, tools, building material, and gathering food. Willow branches have been used as toys by children throughout the ages and by their parents as disciplinary tools. It was the shamans and priests who held the closely guarded secrets of the willow’s medicinal properties. Such knowledge is available to all now, but back then this information conveyed great power and status for those who held it. People were more than willing to part with some food or a flint arrowhead in exchange for a special tea that reduced pain and fever. Today that knowledge is easy to acquire, but few partake.

More importantly, I used my understanding of the environment to meet my own needs. In a world where one’s competency is constantly challenged, finding several options for curing my headache is no small victory. And it didn’t cost me $10.59.